- Reviewed by
In this lithe, well-researched, and readable volume, Lucy Maddox dives deep into an antebellum episode, evoking important reminders about the period in the process. The "border" of the subtitle is that between Pennsylvania and Maryland (a larger and more detailed map than that used as the frontispiece would have been useful), a zone putatively divided into different legal regimes around the institution of slavery. In one sense the 1851 abductions of Elizabeth and Rachel Parker, young African American sisters working in different households in Chester County, Pennsylvania, reified that line. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 empowered owners of runaway slaves by expressly undercutting state laws on the issue. Men such as Thomas McCreary, who grabbed both Elizabeth and Rachel, were sanctioned by federal law when they ventured north of the Mason-Dixon Line. While Marylanders thought of their pursuit as [End Page 419] slave-catching, Pennsylvanians saw it as kidnapping, especially since men like McCreary often played fast and loose, capturing people who were not runaways or who had been living as free people in their communities for years.
In narrating the Parker sisters' saga, however, Maddox reveals the border to have been more of a borderland, a place of interaction between disparate groups. While in some cases that interaction uncovered hard-edged differences—that between "northern" and "southern" attitudes on slavery, for example—Maddox subtly lingers on the indeterminacy of the moment. The area was a setting for clashes between abolitionists and proslavery advocates, but, if followed closely, the controversy also reveals more nuance and fluidity. Some of the Parkers' neighbors disliked abolitionists just as much as they abhorred McCreary and his ilk. Elites in both states were more interested in tamping down the furor than in obtaining justice. Intriguingly, Maddox suggests that Elizabeth Parker, who was sold in New Orleans before being returned to Pennsylvania, may have preferred urban slave life in Louisiana to the life she resumed in Pennsylvania as a free farm laborer. The chief virtue of this book is that by digging into this incident, an issue—kidnapping—that is often part of the story of the hardening of attitudes in the lead-up to the Civil War, is made instead to highlight the contingencies behind that hardening.
The benefits of this sensitive treatment are many. Over nine chapters Maddox sets the stage and then takes the reader through the abductions; the efforts made by a group of white Chester County residents to save Rachel (Elizabeth had been taken unnoticed); the ensuing physical and legal confrontations (leading to the murder of one of the Pennsylvanians); and the two resulting court cases, one centering on the murder and the other on the kidnapping. Along the way readers gain a keen sense of the connections, literal and figurative, that made this event an affair worthy of wider notice. Maddox makes evident the touchiness of slaveholders over abolitionist zealotry, even as local Quakers proved to be increasingly ambivalent. She shows the function of Baltimore's slave pens in funneling mid-Atlantic people of color to the Deep South. Maddox describes the violence at Christiana, in nearby Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, in 1851, as central to understanding the Parker sisters' kidnappings. Taken together, these aspects allow the story of the Parker sisters to serve as a microhistory—an occurrence that lays bare the fibers of the world in which it took place and that illuminates the tensions that produced wider changes thereafter. While scholars of antebellum America might want a more overt analysis of those tensions—Maddox presents a narrative account, not an argument—none will leave The Parker Sisters: A Border Kidnapping disappointed.